When it was announced in 2010 that Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett had collaborated on a new series, the reaction was mixed. How would the often ridiculous flights of fancy that lay at the heart of Pratchett's work mix with the hard science fiction leanings of Baxter? Both had worked successfully with other authors but never with ones of such disparate style.
Developed from a short story that Pratchett wrote in the 80s called "The High Meggas," the new collaborative story revolves around the premise that there are an infinite number of parallel worlds, untouched by humans and therefore a theoretically never-ending source of resources. People discover this when schematics for a "stepper" are put up anonymously online, though it is later revealed to be the work of maverick scientist Willis Linsay. A stepper is a small, easy-to-build device powered by a potato which allows people to move freely from one world to the next, and soon hordes of people are moving around the stepwise Earths—much to the annoyance of the two anti-heroes of the story, Joshua Valiente and Sally (daughter of Willis) Linsay, who are amongst those who have no need for a stepper box and who have an innate ability for stepping. Both these characters are not fond of people and prefer to step to worlds either uninhabited or at least home to the minimum of inhabitants possible. The first novel in the series, The Long Earth, sees Joshua Valiente and Lobsang—an omniscient digitized being who claims to be the reincarnated soul of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman—travel across the many stepwise Earths with apparently no other goal than "to see what's out there," a journey funded by the all-encompassing Black Corporation of which Lobsang happens to be part-owner.
The second book, The Long War, saw humanity spread even further across the long Earth. This book follows the expedition of the Chinese ships Zheng He and Liu Yang as they travel two million steps away from Home Earth. Onboard is an almost emotionless and very smart teenager, Roberta Golding, who is there on a scholarship of sorts but comes to be very influential and essential to the outcome of the mission. Elsewhere in the book, tension brews for the titular war, but ends up never being fully realized.
This is a recurring problem throughout the series, set to be five books long: when the authors have set up a problem they will resolve it in the quickest way possible in order to fit a lot of ideas into a relatively low page count. This frustrated many readers; but when you have two writers with huge fan bases and a wealth of good will aimed toward them, said fan bases will keep coming back expecting the seeds sown in the previous books to bear fruit. Unfortunately, that isn't the case for the majority of the series’ third book, either. The Long Mars answers precious few of the questions posed in the previous novels—while asking quite a few more.
At the end of The Long War, a supervolcano in Yellowstone erupted, leaving America close to uninhabitable—and it's here we first join the action. In any other situation, the population of America would be evacuated to other countries, but in this novel most Americans simply step away. Some are stranded, however, either physically or because they are 'Phobics'—individuals unable to travel across worlds without becoming incredibly sick. Joshua Valiente and Sally Linsay, the anti-heroes of the first two novels, are part of a rescue effort, using their natural stepping talents to rescue those trapped on our Earth.
Meanwhile, the US Navy is allying with the Chinese for trade reasons—and also to take advantage of their advanced stepping tech. In doing so, Captain Maggie Kaufmann and her crew, spread over two stepping airships—the Armstrong II and the Cernan—acquire a Chinese exchange crew to join them on a long trip out into the stepwise worlds. This journey takes them two hundred million steps away from home earth, again with the goal of seeing what is out there—but this time also with the secondary mission of finding the lost Armstrong I. Also on board and uninvited is Douglas Black of the Black Corporation who has, as in The Long Earth, bankrolled this expedition. For the majority of the book, Black's motivations for being there remain fuzzy—and when they become clear they are, again, disappointingly inconsequential for a character that remained elusive for the first two novels and was always implied as having sinister motivations.
For a third novel in a series, it has to be said that not very much happens in The Long Mars. With the setting-up and plot development that happened over the course of Earth and War, The Long Mars should be all story and no messing, but unfortunately that's not the case. It’s as if the authors have big plans for the dénouement of the series that can only be reached with excessive exposition. One feels that readers will be expecting more of a pay-off by now.
Problems arise when you realize that this book is essentially a road movie across the Long Earth and the Long Mars. For instance, Sally Linsay is called away to the gap, the space in-between worlds, where her father, Willis Linsay, is planning his next great adventure—a voyage through the Long Mars of the title. The trip reads for the most part as a field journal rather than a story. This is not to say things don’t happen (in fact by the end of the novel the plot developments are pretty interesting); it’s just that one feels that getting there should have been less cluttered by unnecessary diversions.
For example, another storyline follows the crew of the Armstrong and Cernan as they travel quickly over endless versions of Earth—or, more specifically, of Madison, Wisconsin. Each is fantastically imaginative and a testament to Pratchett and Baxter’s creative fancies. The crew, however, isn't allowed to stay and explore the worlds to any extent—and when they do their activities seem to bear no relevance to the overall plot. At one point a whole chapter is spent on the study of a crustacean civilization, which seems to be there purely for a very Pratchett-esque joke which would work perfectly well in his solo work but is oddly out of place in the context of this novel's universe. While studying the crustaceans, the crews discover a castle made of shell which they examine further:
She turned. 'What?'
He gestured, embarrassed. 'The corner of the temple. Your, umm, butt...'
She turned and looked. 'I demolished the west wing. Oops.' (p. 136)
This results in the crustaceans attacking the crew, but it soon becomes clear that they offer no real threat—making the entire episode an interesting but unnecessary diversion. This is not to say that humor is unwelcome, and elsewhere Sally Linsay has many moments of drier, dour humor that fit the tone of the book much better, but this crab encounter seems like an excuse for a weak joke—and if anything only serves to slow down what is already quite a sluggish story.
In another excursion, the crews encounter a threat that at first seems much more real: they reach an "acid world" where they observe an acid-secreting flying "snake" attacking a native animal ("a cross between a jellyfish and a Hollywood UFO ... [e]ating it from the inside out" [pp. 200-201]). The snake then turns on the ship, but even this threat turns out to be swiftly dealt with, just another plot device for later in the story when the crew encounters the wreckage of the Armstrong I. Here they find the original crew gone, and in their place a group of charming youngsters who claim to have survived the crash thanks to the bravery of the Armstrong’s crew. They are stranded on this particular Earth because they are unable to travel through the acid worlds without the protection of a ship. This isn't entirely true, and it soon becomes apparent that these youngsters are dangerous and in fact killed the crew and caused the crash.
The two chapters in which these events take place are possibly the strongest of the entire book, with a real sense of danger that for a while seems like it could pose problems for the crew—and which, even when resolved, leaves a feeling that events could come crashing down at any moment. It's a great ending to what is a generally boring and muddled storyline, and one that could have had more impact had there been a sense of what the crew were about to encounter seeded throughout the expedition. As it is, the Armstrong I is all but forgotten on the episodic journey toward it, and so, when the crew do discover the wrecked vessel, the reader is less inclined to care about what happened to the original Armstrong crew members.
Over on the Long Mars expedition, meanwhile, Sally Linsay, her father, and the unfulfilled astronaut Frank Wood cross the ever-changing landscape of the stepwise Mars in "stepping gliders," vehicles designed to be sleeker than the airships used for Earth stepping and therefore more suitable for use in the atmosphere of Mars. The slack structure recurs: they only occasionally encounter anything of note and more often than not these episodes exist only as a means of justifying the science of the end goal, in this case a space elevator which Willis Linsay predicts they'll find on one of the stepwise Marses.
On an early Mars they encounter, for instance, sand worms that bring to mind creatures like the Sarlacc from Star Wars, and which are themselves being chased by crab-like creatures. The team encounter similar, if more advanced, creatures later—beings which, as with the snake in the Earth plotline, are there merely to provide action-packed set-pieces in an attempt to break up the monotony of exploring a string of planets which otherwise differ only minutely. In fact, the titular Mars journey again appears to be just one long set-up for the next novel, and yet again could have probably been dealt with in far fewer pages.
There is, however, another and more interesting novel here. The Long Mars was originally dubbed The Long Childhood, and that would have been a more suitable title, since the most interesting and perhaps most relevant part of the story lies with the Next, the new breed of human predicted by Lobsang. They are residing in the group of towns called Happy Landings, so called because people have often ended up there by falling through "soft spots" between worlds. We learn about them through Joshua's recollections of his encounters with the individual known as Paul Spencer Wagoner.
Paul and a group of others are recognized as different, and possibly dangerous. It soon becomes apparent that they are the most interesting thing about the Long Earth series and where it should be heading. Chillingly indifferent to humans or "dim bulbs" as they refer to them (p. 211), because they know themselves to be further evolved and of effectively a different species, they are unusually dangerous because the majority of them are children and prone to arrogance, acting out the frustrations born of knowing they’re a lot smarter than those around them. At one point, Paul Spencer Wagoner describes to Joshua his experience of sex with a "dim bulb":
‘Sex with her, with one of you—well can you imagine having sex with a dumb animal, a beast? […] The animal thrill of the moment—the beautiful, empty eyes—the crashing shame you’d feel when it’s over?’ (p. 209)
The Next are considered such a threat that they are rounded up and kept in a facility, or, in the case of those deadly youngsters discovered by Maggie Kaufmann and her crew, moved millions of worlds away. It's up to Joshua Valiente and Sally Linsay to come together and rescue the youngsters and give them a chance to live their own lives away from the "dim bulbs." Hopefully the Next will feature heavily in the fourth novel, as they provide much-needed menace and real danger to this flagging story.
Writers of books in a series make a decision: spend a large amount of each volume inserting recap dialogue, and exposition for the set-up of the new book—which could be seen as patronizing to fans—or throw a reader into the deep end and assume that they will have followed the series thus far. Furthermore, writers of Baxter and Pratchett's stature must also put a certain amount of commercial consideration into their work, especially when publishing a relatively new series that must tempt in fresh readers with each book. There seems an obvious way to square these circles: surely if a book throws you headlong into an involved and exciting story, then newbies will be tempted to visit the previous novels.
In the case of The Long Mars, unfortunately, we are in the recap category—and as such the book starts out as hard slog. Reading it becomes as if wading through treacle. For the first hundred pages or so, there is a long set-up and explanation of back story before anything of interest or note happens. For a book that has had two previous novels of set-up that is far too long, and even if some exposition was deemed necessary it could arguably have been delivered with a lot more finesse. Even worse, what follows spends a lot of time explaining worlds that needn't be explained (unless, of course, they exist as seeds for the next instalment, which one assumes will therefore follow a similar outline of equally bulky set-up and recap).
The Next storyline, meanwhile, is so compelling that one gets the impression that most of the rest of the novel is there purely because the authors realize they should be exploring the infinite Earths they have opened up—despite knowing that not very much is going to come of this unless they devote significant space to each world. Without writing an epic each time, of course, this sort of narrative detail is never going to be an option. As a result, all The Long Mars does for now is take away from the pace of what could be a good story—and add to the reader's fatigue as they wait for Pratchett and Baxter to get to the point.
Mark Granger also writes for music sites. You can find his most recent work at mark-granger.tumblr.com.